On September 23, Google released Chrome Frame, an add-on for Internet Explorer (IE) 6-8. Chrome Frame allows websites to request that IE visitors use the rendering engine behind Google’s speedy Chrome web browser instead of IE’s native engine. A TechCrunch synopsis and the Chrome Frame page provide further explanation. This article offers strategic insight into why Google is aggressively pushing their own browser technology, whether Chrome Frame will succeed, and how Chrome Frame should be seen by web development clients.
Ask any web developer what they think of Internet Explorer 6 and you’ll hear an earful. The 8 year old web browser still commands nearly 20% of the browser market and is woefully inadequate at supporting modern standards, incurring millions of dollars for legacy support every year. IE 7 and 8 were big improvements, but as we’ve opined on before, even IE8 fails to support forward looking techniques supported by the competition.
Microsoft argues – not without merit – that the real world performance difference on today’s web is negligible or even in IE8′s favor. But Google isn’t thinking about “today’s” web: they’re focused on building the next generation of web based products. And they’ve made it clear that web browser technology – on which they depend – isn’t moving where it needs to at a fast enough pace.
Google’s rationale for Chrome (improving web browsers) may seem selfless at first blush, but don’t be fooled. Google knows that their continued growth depends on more eyeballs, more often so they can deliver more ads and – let’s face it – collect more information about our habits. The path to more eyeballs more often is paved with killer web applications, and being able to traverse the path of killer applications depends on the web browser.
I doubt Google wants to be in the business of building web browsers any more than Honda wants to manufacture tires. They’re just dependent, and unsatisfied, most of all, with Microsoft’s dominant web browser – the most “behind” of the batch. Enter Chrome Frame: a plug-in for Internet Explorer 6-8 that, combined with a meta tag in the HTML’s header, will let Internet Explorer use Chrome instead of Microsoft’s Trident engine to render web pages. To be clear, Google is making no bones about their beef with IE6-8. On the Chrome Frame download page, they’re upfront:
Start using open web technologies – like the HTML5 canvas tag – right away, even technologies that aren’t yet supported in Internet Explorer 6, 7, or 8.
So we’re clear on – and quite sympathetic to – the rationale behind Chrome and Chrome Frame. A couple of our our more technically sophisticated clients reached out to us about Chrome Frame today, wondering if they should implement the meta tag that tells Internet Explorer to use Chrome Frame. Admittedly, without having time to experiment with all 3 compatible browsers, we have to admit we’re hesitant to endorse this, and skeptical about its success.
It seems to me, there are a few reasons people are using Internet Explorer.
Especially with Microsoft aggressively pushing and incentivizing upgrades (for which they deserve credit), the only likely reason that someone is using an out of date version of Internet Explorer (particularly 6) is either because they just don’t care (even going so far as to ignore Windows Update requests), or because the browser is imposed on them by IT departments for legacy or business reasons. If the user doesn’t care, it seems fairly unlikely that he or she would ever care to install Chrome Frame (let alone even hear about it).
If the browser is imposed by IT on a user who is interested in installing an alternative but locked out, it seems doubtful the user would be allowed to install an Internet Explorer add-on. Note: I don’t have a locked down environment to test this in, so if anyone can confirm whether the Chrome Frame add-on can be installed even on a machine locked down from installing applications, let me know. If so, and I’m wrong about this assumption, there may well be a significant niche to consider.
With Internet Explorer 8, some may genuinely prefer the browser. It may be comfort with Microsoft products, a preference for the user interface and features, or just a choice to use the browser that shipped with the operating system. There may be a small audience that prefers the look and feel, but would be happy to use a different rendering engine. But it seems to me that most users who choose to use IE8 because they believe it’s a better product wouldn’t want to install the engine for a product that they actively chose not to use (Chrome).
In short, if you want to use the Chrome engine, and you’re allowed to install add-ons and applications, why not use, well, Chrome “proper”?
The best answer is that the user is simply unaware of the option. Let’s face it: the fact that I’ve seen a basic question (answer?) on Jeopardy about Chrome in a higher dollar category reveals what is probably obvious: outside of the moderately technically savvy – those who make a conscious choice about their browser – most people probably don’t have a clue what Google Chrome is.
Google tries to solve this by allowing your website to offer Google Chrome to the visitor if the site is using the special meta tag. But do I feel comfortable telling clients that they should force 65% of their audience to be greeted by a “would you like to install Google Chrome” message? Can’t say I do. Seems like for most it would be an annoyance at a best, and at worst, scare off visitors who don’t know what “Chrome” is and wonder if some ad is being aggressively pushed on them.
Chrome is a great browser – my personal primary choice for casual surfing (Firefox is still the best for development) – and I appreciate the idea behind Chrome Frame. Will the idea work? For now, color me skeptical.